John K Samson – Provincial
“Heart of the Continent”
Many albums, many very good albums, operate on a very simple strategy – they make you live a dream. Last year, albums like Watch the Throne and Take Care played out a millionaire’s fantasy in their listeners’ minds, while those listeners’ pockets were becoming more and more depleted (“25 sitting on 25 mil”, anyone?). There are albums that are dreams of earth-shattering, mythical, out-of-this world love – The Decemberists’ Hazards of Love and The Morning Benders’ Big Echo are perfect examples. On the flipside, there are albums that plunge the listener into the nightmarish darkness of the artists’ mind – in themselves a certain kind of dream – that make you reconsider all that existential poetry you wrote after your last breakup. I’m thinking here of For Emma, Forever Ago, of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Alligator by the National, and much of Emily Haines’ solo work, just to name a few. And then, there are albums that just allow you to get a glimpse of what it would be like to be in the artist’s shoes – i.e., pretty much everything by Old Crow Medicine Show, Let England Shake by PJ Harvey, Acid Tongue by Jenny Lewis, or The Harrow and the Harvest by Gillian Welch.
In simple terms, many albums seek to take you away from yourself; to provide you with a fantasy. While this is admirable and likely necessary occupation for musicians, one man, John K. Samson, has always sought to attain a different end through his music. Whether with his seminal Canadian band The Weakerthans, or though his solo work , Samson has sought to say no, you don’t need to go outside yourself to see beauty, to see meaning, to see love. The ingredients for those feelings are already present within you – they are a priori to your very existence - and it is not a change in these ingredients but a different way of looking at them that will produce freedom, beauty, love.
I have to preface – if you can call 3 paragraphs deep into a piece prefacing – by admitting that John K. Samson is, quite uncontestably, my favorite songwriter of all time. My love for his music is long and strong. It began with my fascination as a 13-year old with “One Great City” a.k.a. “I Hate Winnipeg”, and a subsequent very strong, now ten-year desire to actually travel to Winnipeg one of these days (yes, like a pilgrimage). When thinking about the impact of Samson’s music on me, I’m always reminded of Emma Thomson’s observation about Joni Mitchell in the movie “Love Actually”: “Joni Mitchell taught your cold English wife how to love”. Although I can’t say that I in any way partake in the identity of a “cold English wife” (at least not yet), John Samson’s music, as music should, has taught me how to love. And not just love in the romantic sense, although that certainly figures, but love for all things big and small: the way that winter dies the same way every spring; the clash of sadness and optimism when you’re facing a sun in an empty room; the simple warmth of all kinds of nostalgia, like a fire door that we kept propping open; and how good it is sometimes to just hang out, with someone good – to sit and watch the wall, you painted purple. I’m going to stop now even though I don’t want to (for your sake), but I could really go on for pages.
(A funny/irrelevant aside – just last night, as I was hanging out with my significant other, with this piece on my mind, the lyric popped into my mind and I just blurted out: “I’m so glad that you exist!” This was followed by a well-deserved “aw” from the said other, at which point I had to confess: “Actually, that’s a John Samson line.” Unfortunately my other is not (yet!) as versed in his JKS as me, and somewhat indignantly, he went “Who’s John Samson!”, thinking that he’s some random dude. Anyway, no worries and I have since cleared up who Johns Samson is.)
On January 24, 2012, the new Samson album, titled, ever-so-aptly, Provincial, was finally released to the masses. For me, the album represented a whole new field of dreams – an opportunity for twelve more songs to become complete beloveds.In the weeks leading up to the album I listened incessantly to The Weakerthans and to Samson’s other solo work, distilling his lyrical work to its fundamental components. On Provincial, I was hoping to find a continuation of the same trusty themes that permeate Samson’s work – winter, hockey, memories, Canada, hospitals, highways, cats, love, curling, regret, life, and of course, Winnipeg – a city for small lives. Above all, I wanted new thoughtful Samson songs to sink my teeth into, new tunes to play and level with for years to come.
Man, were my prayers ever answered. By the time I got to the end of the opener, “Highway 1 East”, I was hooked. The song is about driving east, and letting your mind get lost, on the Trans-Canada: Scratch Saskatchewan away/ Make Manitoba paper dolls/ Lift up a lie from highway 1/ To tie Ontario.
“Heart of the Continent”, the album’s second track, is a Samson classic . The story of the song goes something like this: some time in 2008, the city of Winnipeg went ahead and re-branded itself. For years, Winnipeg greeted its drivers with “Winnipeg: One Great City.” However, as of 2008, Winnipeg became more into seeing itself as the “Heart of the Continent”, and it changed its welcome signs appropriately. Of course, this made Samson’s quintessential Winnipeg track “One Great City”, (you know, the “I Hate Winnipeg” ode to the town), rather out of date. The new Winnipeg tune, “Heart of the Continent”, appears on Provincial. The song is a brooding and thoughtful little number, both about Winnipeg, and not. The key lyric is near the end – There’s a billboard on the highway/ That says “Welcome to – Bienvenue” / But no sign to show you when you go away”.
Is Samson just talking about Winnipeg, reflecting on the town’s desire to affect and change itself through this seemingly meaningless gesture? Or is he talking about so many other things? Maybe he’s saying, isn’t it funny, isn’t it just so human, that so many of us do the same thing as Winnipeg on a fairly regular basis? We rebrand, we make new signs. We think our new job, new home, new year, new hobby, new friends, new love will change us, will make us new, different – but in reality these things are often simply signage changes, hanging on the exterior of the same old you. But beyond that rather depressing thought, as there always is with Samson, there’s a tentative good, a fragile lesson, a shaky exclamation mark. When you start feeling like, goddammit, you’re going to run out of new signs soon, is the point when you forget about the signs and start appreciating what they stand for. For Samson in “Heart of the Continent”, it’s looking at how shitty Winnipeg can be – north wind sinks the fence around a lot full of debris/ Near the corner of Memorial and me – and extracting from this rather grim setting an implicit, transcendent beauty. He’s confirming the age-old truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So if you really want to see it – in Winnipeg, or in you – then you will.
Another absolutely stand-out song on Provincial is “Letter in Icelandic From Ninnette San”. This is a different kind of Samson classic. Here, Samson shows his abilities as a true poet, spinning words that flow like milk and honey from one verse to the next. You don’t ever get to find out what this song is really about – there’s a hospital involved, vague references to Icelandic epics, and persons known only to John. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this song, with Samson’s endearing, slightly nasally voice and the shuffle drums that remind oh-so-much of “Fallow”, is as close to perfect as they come:
Bev Monroe and his panel of alley boys play at the party
And I practice my English on nurses, “oh that’s a nice name”.
And they may ask me for mine, but the burns on my back from the x-rays,
Say I shouldn’t show anyone anything ever again.
On “The Last And”, another shuffling beauty, Samson spins a tale of a staff-room love gone wrong. His descriptions are so deep and so touching, that one cannot help but feel for the downcast, probably somewhat chubby, substitute teacher protagonist: When your voice springs from the intercom/With announcements, and reminders, and prayers/ I remember how you made me feel/ I was funny, I was thoughtful, I was rare. The song culminates in simple words laden with unspeakable burdens: I know I’m just your little ampersand.
In contrast, songs like “Petition” and “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” provide light reprisals during the album’s heavier moments. On “Master’s Thesis”, John tells a story of a grad student whose whole life, seemingly, will unfurl in a rainbow of awesomeness once he finally gets down to writing his Master’s thesis: No more marking, first-years’ papers/No more citing sources, sources, sour-ces! In similar vein, “Petition” is a song which looks to induct Reggie ‘The Riverton Rifle’ Leach into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The song doubles as an online petition, which can be found and signed here: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle/donate. A chorus of what I can only imagine to be proud Winnipegans (ians?) accompany Samson throughout the song with one monotonic demand: We, the undersigned, put forth his name, to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
At the end of the day, Provincial is an absolutely sublime effort, and one which is long overdue from Canada’s best songwriter. Here, John K. Samson manages to be both moving and gentle, poignant yet effortless. He has, once again, come up with easy songs that talk about hard things, good things, bad things, and just things – a beautiful portrayal of just another day in the life of an average (Canadian) you.
To be completely honest, I think Provincial is John Samson’s best work to date.